• What the Hekia Doing?

    John Key enjoyed his first term as Prime Minister. It all seemed so easy. But now, in his second term, it’s not so much fun.

    The rot began to set in even before the last election, with the ill-fated storm in the John Banks teacup, and the Epsom MP has continued to give him nightmares ever since. But it is not just the Prime Minister’s inability to take decisive action to purge his government of a toxic element that has hurt him; the perception is growing that he is not as good as he should be at running an effective government.

    Too many of his ministers seem to lack proper direction; too many do and say things that surely cannot have been approved by Cabinet. When he looks at his education minister’s recent record, for example, with ill-judged initiatives followed by embarrassing backdowns on class sizes and Canterbury school closures, he could be excused for exclaiming “What the Hekia doing?”

    And how close an eye does he keep on his Foreign Minister, who used his speech to the UN General Assembly to promote New Zealand’s candidature for a seat on the Security Council in 2014, but at the same time has virtually destroyed our proud record as an active member of UNESCO, of whose founding document we were the second country to step up to sign in 1946? Is that the way to demonstrate that we are a good UN citizen?

    Even his most senior ministers seem to be laws unto themselves. Bill English, with whom he seems to have an increasingly tetchy relationship, seems not to have bothered to keep the Prime Minister in the loop over one of his main responsibilities while acting as PM during John Key’s absence overseas. And the Prime Minister himself seems to have a pretty cavalier attitude to those same responsibilities, declaring that a barely believable mistake by the spy agencies for which he is responsible minister – and one that was absolutely central to the performance of their prime functions – was nothing to do with him.

    Little wonder, then, that the Prime Minister now displays the unmistakable symptoms of a familiar second-term syndrome. Prime Ministers often get tired of the continued pressure and criticism they encounter on a daily basis in domestic politics. They begin to yearn, and then actively to look for, the respite they gain from overseas trips, whether necessary or manufactured.

    How pleasant it must be – after all the trials and tribulations of dealing with an ungrateful public – to go abroad to be feted and flattered, to be treated as an honoured guest, to enjoy the attention of uncritical media. But it is always a bad sign when, in any walk of life, someone doing an important job is happier away from it than actually doing it.

    The Prime Minister enjoys – and why not – overseas travel. The opportunities to travel – particularly to the United States, whether to watch his son play baseball or to tour Hollywood studios – seem, however, to be coming with increasing frequency.

    His latest foray to Hollywood is not just to collect a couple of autographs from some minor Hollywood celebrities. It has, we are assured, a serious purpose; but that serious purpose does not necessarily make us feel any happier about it.

    His latest engagement with the major film moguls, after all, calls to mind his last involvement with them, when a handful of Warner Bros executives rolled into town, told the Prime Minister what they wanted, and left shortly afterwards with major tax concessions (that is, gifts) in their pockets and having forced a change in our labour laws that reduced the rights of New Zealand workers. And we must bear in mind that John Key’s usual response to powerful overseas corporations, from mining interests to purchasers of our assets, is “The answer’s yes, now, what’s the question?”

    The Prime Minister assures us that he does not intend to make any further offers on this occasion – and short of handing over our powers of self-government, it is hard to know what more he could do to ingratiate himself with them. But what is the Prime Minister doing there at all?

    According to his own account, he is there as a salesman – and that raises another set of questions. The Prime Minister’s special expertise, as a foreign exchange dealer, was as a deal-maker; but, given the whole range of responsibilities he has to shoulder and the many pressing problems demanding his attention, is this the best way he can find to spend four days in his busy schedule? And, if the government really does need to softsoap Hollywood, does he not have a trade minister to do that?

    Do we really want or need a Prime Minister whose first and perhaps only thought is sell off whatever he can lay his hands on? And should those assets he seems so ready to sell include his – and our – self-respect as well?

    Bryan Gould

    2 October 2012

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 4 October.

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